Commentary

Exit, Voice, or Both

On a late afternoon in November 2014, a few dozen Hungarian expats were gathering outside the Hungarian embassy in Berlin, to protest their government’s latest harebrained idea to tax the internet. It was part of a Europe-wide protest – expats from Stockholm, London, Bristol, Berlin, Munich, Lisbon, Brussels have joined in (among others), supporting the main event in Budapest and other Hungarian towns.

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Protests on the same day in Budapest (Photo: István Huszti, Index.hu)

In Berlin, people were getting introduced and life stories shared while the speakers set up stage on top of a grey concrete cube. There was the obligatory artist living in Kreuzberg, there were the suited professionals, and there were the students and economic migrants living in Germany in search for a better education or a better life.

“Get lost, will you?” yelled a student at a man. “It is all public on Facebook, I’ll tag you in the group shots.”

Indeed, the guy expressed a compulsive interest in my name and employer too, just a few moments earlier. We conceded that he was indeed the guy from national security and mocked his unprofessionalism. The man pretended to check on his phone and then left the protest without a word.

A few minutes later the speech started. The speaker read it in Hungarian – then the translation in German, sentence by sentence. It worked fine for a while, but then the speech turned into a baroque monster that only makes sense on paper – if at all. The sentences became long and convoluted, and the translator visibly struggled. First he asked it to be repeated, then he lowered his loudspeaker and scratched his head helplessly.

The audience moved closer and formed a cosy little group around the concrete cube – cordially brainstorming about the best way to translate that tricky phrase. The comic value of the scene was not lost on us.

Expats are not illiberal enough

I have met these Berlin expats before: when we cast our votes against the Orbán regime in the general elections – despite the administrative barriers against it.

The Orbán regime doesn’t like expat votes. And for good reason. Western expats are not illiberal. Many of them seek a better future – and not always voluntarily.

The employment market has stalled in Hungary. The SSC sector that used to soak up new graduates in large numbers is in two minds about staying in the country and is only kept there by institutional inertia – for now. FDI is alarmed by whimsical and vindictive legislation – that PM Viktor Orbán calls “effective”- and SMEs are mortally exposed to the taxman that routinely practices the assumption of guilt and legislative intimidation. The start-up scene has been ominously embraced by the government that means anything but innovation.

But it’s not just about jobs. Secondary education has been morbidly centralised and rendered dysfunctional, while higher education had been robbed of its autonomy and resources. Students had to protest against the limitation on free movement if their education is funded by the state. Many of them decided to skip it altogether and apply directly to universities abroad.

A few months ago in Budapest a friend invited me to the founding event of a new millennial political formation – ambitioning to become an alternative force towards a Western, liberal or even capitalist Hungary. But we had to schedule the meeting around exams. And not just in Hungary, but all over the world.

Exit, Voice – and Both

Albert Hirschman famously listed exit, voice, and loyalty as the three approaches an individual can take when dissatisfied with a product, or a political system. ‘Exit’ and ‘voice’ are straightforward, but economists as well as political scientists have grappled with ‘loyalty’ ever since. The theory is unhelpful when consumers don’t (or can’t) choose to exit – and voters cannot choose to raise their voice and improve their political system. And it is silent about the ‘exit’ that makes raising our ‘voice’ even possible.

Oppressive political regimes thrive on the fluid interaction between these three choices. Latin American countries, for instance, have developed the method of sending the opposition in exile to perfection. Emigration often serves as a political pressure valve and remittances sent home may even help to prolong the death throes of a suffocating economy.

Expats are in a peculiar situation. They can express their dissent by both exiting the country that fails to accommodate them – and by casting their votes or otherwise expressing political opinions. They can donate to human rights and transparency NGOs, write blogs and op-eds, and freely express their views when they visit home for the holidays.

People left behind, on the other hand, have neither of those options. They are often effectively stopped from expressing views for fear of losing their livelihood or causing (economic or legal) harm to a loved one.

Take the example of teachers. When the education system became centralised in 2012, they had to be re-employed by KLIK, the central planning education authority. Some teachers didn’t make the cut in the first place – and not necessarily for professional reasons. As one teacher put it, without membership in Fidesz, or their mock-NGO, or participation in at least one Peace March, one could hope for nothing good.

But even those, who made it, should remain silent. Being fired from one school means being fired from KLIK altogether. If they ever want to work as a teacher again – they better be compliant. That makes the expression of political views less of a priority.

Naturally, the fear of repercussions can be real or perceived. But decades under authoritarianism taught people the kind of self-enforcement and self-censorship that makes them helpless and overcautious. When it comes to political opinions, it is safer to err on the safe side.

Expats, on the other hand, are unbound by these feudalistic ties. They are also mainly young and highly educated, energetic and hopeful. Especially millennials tend to be actively impatient with the direction their homeland took. They are slowly but confidently finding their own way of interacting with the political system left behind. They turn their disapproval into votes for now. And protests.

It was dark in Berlin by the time the protesters translated the rest of the long speech. One of the artists figured it would be best to take the group shot with the Brandenburger Tor in the background. We arranged ourselves and turned on the torch lights. And then waited patiently.

Just another minute…

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Photo: Hungarian protesters on Unter den Linden, Berlin (November, 2014)

Featured image: Protesters in London, Trafalgar Square (November, 2014) Source: Euronews.com

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6 thoughts on “Exit, Voice, or Both

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